For years after the release of Billy Hayes' book Midnight Express, and especially after the film version directed by Alan Parker, the term "Turkish prison" became a shorthand punchline for hell on earth. Attempting to smuggle hashish out of the country, Hayes was arrested by Turkish police searching for terrorists. Sentenced to a relatively lenient four years and a few months, Hayes served most of his time, only to see the sentence converted to life by a higher court, prompting him to make a break for the Greek border and tell the world his hellish tale.
Parker and a young screenwriter named Oliver Stone were among those listening, and with the 1978 film version, they converted Hayes' story into an exploitative yet meditative film. Brad Davis plays Hayes as a naïve American tourist unprepared for the consequences of his crime. Thrown into prison, he bonds with a few of his fellow prisoners, which isn't enough to stop the place from slowly leeching his humanity away.
Cued by Giorgio Moroder's excellent, though not exactly timeless, synth score, Parker's gauzy direction uses the stylish play of light and shadow that Ridley Scott would soon perfect; there's a lot of the coming decade in this '70s film. The neutral tone nicely offsets the extreme material, and the cast—which includes a drugged-out John Hurt and a hotheaded Randy Quaid—does excellent work. Davis has a heart-wrenching late scene that's almost too raw to watch, as a reunion with his girlfriend reduces him to a sobbing, masturbating mess.
But Midnight Express is at war with itself. Strong when it focuses on the psychological toll of prison, it falls apart when it turns the focus elsewhere, and its depictions of all Turks as swarthy, corrupt, and sadistic is pretty inexcusable, leading Stone and Hayes to apologize in later years. (Sample dialogue: "For a nation of pigs, it sure is funny that you don't eat 'em.") And it flinches in some unexpected places. After a long buildup and an erotically staged, romantically scored shower scene, Davis firmly rebuffs the advances of a Swedish friend. He, and the audience, can handle the torture, sure. But not that.
Key features: A solid making-of documentary joins Parker's thorough commentary and surprisingly entertaining making-of booklet. A sample: "[John Hurt's] decision not to bathe for six weeks made him less than popular."